It was forbidden to allow the posthumous destruction of Man, God, and - this even for the most secularist of Jews - that hope without which a Jew cannot live, the hope which is the gift of Judaism to all humanity. To deny Hitler the posthumous victory of destroying this faith was a moral-religious commandment. I no longer hesitated to call it the 614th commandment.
-Emil Fackenheim, To Mend the World (preface)
It was supposed to be simply a vacation, fairly last minute: we really didn't have the time or budget to plan a vacation this summer, so we found four days between obligations, added up our frequent flier miles, and booked a trip to Prague. We were looking for "escape," without email or cell phones, a different climate, different culture, pleasures of the senses. We had resigned ourselves to being surrounded by Israelis, as Prague is a hugely popular destination for 3- and 4-day packages from Israel. But apparently we were the last Israelis who hadn't been there, as we heard almost no Hebrew. And indeed, Prague is a breathtakingly beautiful city, where we walked our feet off, tried to keep straight the fascinating history, attended concerts, marveled at the architecture, shopped for souvenirs, managed to find decent food, and had a lovely time.
However, in reading the guide book, I discovered that Terezin (Theresienstadt) is just 50 minutes away by public bus, and though I have never been enthusiastic about Holocaust tourism, we both felt the need to go. The trip is through rolling farmland, through a few not-very-prosperous-looking small towns, to a town built originally as an 18th century fortress surrounded by brick ramparts and a moat; later it was a garrison town, and then finally just a town of a few thousand Czechs, who were driven out by the Nazis when they converted the place into a transit ghetto. Today parts of the massive barracks and storage buildings are crumbling; some have been restored. Czechs have returned to live in them, and as we ate our picnic lunch on a decrepit park bench (communist era?), semi-trailers rolled through the town and locals passed by on bikes and tractors and cars. The place feels semi-deserted, and sad. We were accosted twice by drunken beggars. There is an impressive museum that documents the horrors of the place - and the triumph of the human spirit, the spiritual resistance to tyranny that was demonstrated in the rich cultural life of the ghetto. The tour route through town includes the cemetery and the crematoria that were built when the cemetery couldn't keep up. The whole day felt surreal, an outing in the country to a place of such horror, where innocent people today live their lives in the same streets and buildings. Your mind can't really put it all together, and the dissonance of different experiences and feelings is numbing. And then you go out to the weedy bus stop on the highway and take the 3:05 back to Prague.
That was Friday. On Saturday we went to services at the Altneu Schule, a synagogue built in gothic style in 1270, that has survived fires and floods and religious wars, the Holocaust and communism, basically unscathed, and is today the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe. It is rather austere, with wrought iron railings and well-worn dark wood furnishings, a high vaulted ceiling, thick walls, and high narrow windows. The walls are beige plaster and stone, with almost no decoration. I sat a few seats away from the seat of the Maharal, one of the greatest names in European Jewish scholarship (16th century); there were about 100 people altogether, pretty much filling the place. Most were tourists or expatriates, though there was obviously a hard core of locals (there are about 6,000 Jews in Prague today). I was feeling sort of emotional about the transition - visiting the crematorium yesterday, praying in a thousand-year old synagogue today - when the gabbai asked me if I would take the maftiraliyah (meaning, to chant the Haftarah). Not because I was a rabbi or anything, just because I was a Jew, a guest, who came on time and sat near the front. I felt like a bar mitzvah boy, hearing my own voice echoing in the gothic vaults, keeping the 614th commandment.